Network not working? You may need more bandwidth. Gigabit Ethernet may be the answer, write Alex Burrows and Anne Loxton.

A trend in the growing use of communications networks is causing a strain on many organisations' existing infrastructures. New network applications, more users accessing large amounts of information, and high-performance servers are all contributing to an increasing volume of traffic over Local Area Networks (LANs). Consequently, bandwidth offered by typical networks is quickly becoming inadequate.

According to Cisco Systems, Inc., most businesses report 200% to 300% traffic growth per year as a result of an increasing number of users and higher dependence on existing applications. Enterprises with intranet use see traffic growth at 500% to 600% per year.1 Information packed businesses, such as in the reinsurance industry, require large amounts of bandwidth to keep the flow of information fast and smooth. Large databases and powerful applications all require more bandwidth than ever before.

So what's the solution for bandwidth hungry networks?
Gigabit Ethernet, the newest in networking technologies, addresses this ever increasing demand, with the capacity to access network services faster than ever before.

Transmitting data at 1,000 megabits per second, Gigabit Ethernet is 100 times faster than traditional Ethernet, which runs at 10 Mbps and 10 times faster than Fast Ethernet, which transmits at 100 Mbps. The faster transfer rate relieves bottlenecks typically found in existing networks and to the end user means faster access to network services such as server-based applications, network files and the internet.

Gigabit Ethernet is currently used in high-capacity LAN backbone applications, linking network infrastructure equipment such as switches and hubs. Earlier versions of Ethernet caused these bottlenecks in the backbone as large amounts of information from various users were competing for limited bandwidth. With Gigabit Ethernet, this is avoided.

Network insurance
Think of it as insurance for the future of your network. Bandwidth demands will continue to increase, and Gigabit Ethernet will be able to accommodate this growth for any organisation - it is unlikely companies will exceed bandwidth available through Gigabit Ethernet in the foreseeable future.

This is attracting the reinsurance industry in Bermuda, which has already embraced the new technology. Centre Solutions (Bermuda) Ltd (formerly Centre Re) is one of the first companies to take advantage of the capacity offered by Gigabit Ethernet. The technology was installed in June this year in their new offices in the Zurich Centre Building, which sits on the Hamilton waterfront.

“Gigabit Ethernet was the logical choice for us when installing the infrastructure in the new building,” says Russell Medway, assistant vice president of information technology for Centre Solutions, and responsible for IT infrastructure for Centre Solutions Group worldwide. “The nature of our business means a lot of information is being accessed by a large number of users, and this is always increasing. I need to be able to offer our employees the fastest service possible, and am able to do this with the new Gigabit Ethernet backbone.”

The technology is currently used only at the company's Bermuda office, but Mr Medway plans to implement it at other Centre Solutions offices around the world.

New technology over existing infrastructures
Gigabit Ethernet works as an extension of Ethernet (10Mbps) and Fast Ethernet (100 Mbps) formats. Newer existing management systems and cabling are often capable of handling Gigabit Ethernet. Companies who have already installed fibre optic backbones can use their existing cabling. Category 5 copper cable can also handle Gigabit Ethernet over short distances. Most networks can be upgraded with limited cost.

“One of the main attractions for us was the ability of Gigabit Ethernet to work seamlessly with traditional Ethernet and Fast Ethernet,” says Mr Medway. “This way we do not have to upgrade all our equipment at once - we can continue to use our existing slower devices such as printers and WAN routers.” IT professionals can leverage their existing knowledge of Ethernet applications to install and maintain Gigabit Ethernet. There is no learning curve for anyone who has worked on previous Ethernet solutions - it is managed exactly the same.

Accepted industry standards
While still relatively new on the networking front, Gigabit Ethernet has undergone the usual trials to emerge as a proven technology. The Gigabit Ethernet Alliance was founded in May 1996, to promote co-operation in its development and establish industry standards. The technology now has approved standards and IT managers consider it to be a proven, reliable solution. In the past six months, a new standard for Gigabit Ethernet over copper cable was also introduced, approving its use over Category 5 cable for short distances.

“We had no concern with this being a relatively new technology - it has been around for more than a year now, and there are solid standards in place,” explains Mr Medway about Centre's decision to go with Gigabit Ethernet.

The technology has also evolved enough that equipment now costs only marginally more than previous Ethernet technology. “When you consider the cost on a ‘value per bandwidth' basis, Gigabit Ethernet is most certainly an affordable option,” says Mr Medway.

The industry's top manufacturers are producing Gigabit Ethernet equipment that is as reliable as any other networking equipment on the market.

For businesses large and small
The value of Gigabit Ethernet is not limited to larger companies - the advantage of increased bandwidth can benefit smaller organisations as well, particularly as the use of networks evolves from simple printer sharing to e-mail, internet access, centralised file storage and client/server applications such as accounting systems and databases. A smaller staff does not necessarily mean a smaller demand for bandwidth.

Renaissance Reinsurance of Bermuda has a staff of 43, and has also installed Gigabit Ethernet technology, connecting networks in its three buildings in downtown Hamilton.

“We have always been on the leading edge of technology, and adding Gigabit Ethernet to our infrastructure was the next natural step,” says Dion Tucker, network administrator at Renaissance Reinsurance. “I have been watching this technology evolve during the past year and a half, and am confident this is the best solution to provide my users with increased bandwidth.”
Vendors are also manufacturing equipment for smaller companies with fewer users, to enable them to leverage the value of this new technology.

Gigabit Ethernet v ATM
The only available alternative to bandwidth provided by Gigabit Ethernet is ATM (Asynchronous Transfer Mode). A few years ago, ATM was considered to be the future of networks. The technology however is expensive and requires additional training for IT professionals. These limitations may have contributed to the iiindustry moving away from the possibilities of ATM, which is now operated almost exclusively by carriers.

For businesses, the promise of ATM has become a reality with Gigabit Ethernet. It is the corporate world's answer to more bandwidth - is more affordable, easier to use and evolving to offer the functions only previously offered by ATM.

The future of Gigabit Ethernet
Although first designed only for backbone solutions, Gigabit Ethernet is already being modified for use throughout entire networks - to take it from the backbone to the server, and eventually to the desktop. This is good news for companies interested in multimedia applications such as video conferencing at the desktop.The nature of the reinsurance business makes companies very dependent on technology. The continued success of Bermuda's reinsurance industry means reinsurance companies will continue to grow and increase the demands on existing networks - and IT experts will continue to look for the best available technology for their users. Installing Gigabit Ethernet is your IT department's answer to capacity planning for the future.

Alex Burrows is a senior networking engineer for the CCS Group of Bermuda. Anne Loxton is marketing manager at CCS. CCS is a business communications technology company offering advanced solutions in networking, cabling, software and voice and data services.

1. Cisco Systems Inc., corporate web site www.cisco.com.